who are we?

a homily, based on John 1.6-8, 19-28 and Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, preached with the people of All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Clinton, SC, and Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, at the joint Advent service on Wednesday, December 13, 2017

“Who are you?”

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), 1886-1894, James Tissot (1836-1902)

The priests and Levites from Jerusalem, intrigued by this strange man who stepped out of the wilderness proclaiming a prophetic message of One who was coming, asked, “Who are you?” John answered, equally intriguingly, not by saying, “I am…”, but rather confessing, declaring, “I am not the Messiah or Elijah, whom Malachi, 400 years earlier, had prophesied would return(1) or the prophet whom Moses once promised would come who, as he, would be a lawgiver.(2)

John’s testimony, thereby, bore witness to this reality: A statement of one’s authentic, God-borne, Spirit-breathed identity is as true in declaring what…who one is not as it is to proclaim who one is. Verily, saying who one is not may be more true, for, in the words of the Apostle, we see in a mirror, dimly,(3) unable to know ourselves fully. (Thus, truth be told, whenever we say, “I am…”, perhaps, at best, it’s an educated guess!)

This issue of our identity is echoed in Isaiah, who, 2500 years ago, on behalf of the people Israel, freed from their Babylonian captivity to journey for a second time to the Promised Land, declared “the Spirit of the Lord…has anointed me…to bring good news to the oppressed…to proclaim liberty to the captives…release to the prisoners.” So momentous was this God-borne, Spirit-breathed vocation that surely you and I, if asked, “Is this you?” might be quick to say, “I am not!”

Ah, but we need to reconsider. For it is no surprise that Jesus, the One John proclaimed was coming, used these very words on that sabbath day in the synagogue in Nazareth to inaugurate his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”(4)

Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Thus, it cannot, must not be a surprise to us – as Jesus, who already hath been born, who hath performed his earthly ministry, who hath been arrested and tried, crucified and raised from the dead, who hath ascended on high to sit down at the right hand of God to come again to judge the living and dead, and who hath sent his Spirit to abide within us with divine presence and power that we might proclaim liberty to the oppressed, brokenhearted, and captive – that we, yea, even we are those who, to the question, “Who are you?” dare can answer, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon us!”

 

Illustrations:
Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)
Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre), James Tissot

Footnotes:
(1) Malachi 4.5-6
(2) Deuteronomy 18.15-18
(3) 1 Corinthians 13.12
(4) Luke 4.14-21

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the heart of the story

a sermon, based on Mark 1.1-8, Isaiah 40.1-11, and Psalm 85.1-2, 8-13, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2017

“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…”

Saint Mark (Saint Marc) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn MuseumI love Mark the evangelist’s account, his “take” on the Jesus-story. Not that his narrative is better than the others; for each has a chosen audience and a particular emphasis. That’s why the canonical New Testament has four. (One is good. Two or three are better. Four are best!) Rather I love Mark because he begins by leaping into the heart of the story.

Unlike Matthew, Mark doesn’t begin with the genealogy of Jesus, which, yes, is important, tracing Jesus’ earthly heritage through the generations of his Hebrew forebears, beginning with the patriarch Abraham,(1) followed by an account of his birth and the coming of the Magi from the East…

Unlike Luke, Mark doesn’t begin with that amazing visit to Mary from the angel Gabriel, which, yes, is important, announcing that she would bear God’s child…

Unlike John, Mark doesn’t begin by pulling back the curtain separating earth and heaven, which, yes, is important, inviting us to peer into the infinite cosmos in search of the workings of the mind of God before all things, before anything: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”(2)

No, Mark begins, again, by leaping in to the heart of the story: The proclamation of the good news of salvation. Thus, we are bidden to hear the cry of John the baptizer, a messenger heralding the coming of Jesus: “I am a voice crying in the wilderness!” The same utterance of the prophet Isaiah centuries before to the people Israel trapped in Babylonian captivity, announcing their soon-to-come emancipation. John, daring to repeat these sacred words of liberation, daring to declare that God, in a new day and time, does what God always is doing – redeeming, reconciling – announces that human captivity to sin and separation from God is over! For, as John only can proclaim salvation, “The one more powerful than I” – Who will perform it! – “is coming after me.”

So, in the words of the psalmist, let us “listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace” – redemption, reconciliation; no longer estranged from God in sin – “to his faithful people.” And, in our listening, let us be those “who turn their hearts to him.”

And let us not only listen, but take note how John appears. Not in flowing robes of finest silk or linen and not at a banquet table groaning under the weight of a smorgasbord of epicurean delights. No. John is dressed as the great prophet Elijah(3) in camel’s hair, a leather belt around his waist and he dines on locusts and wild honey.

And let us take note where John proclaims his message. Not on a paved street in the great city of Jerusalem, but rather, having tread the rutted, dusty pathways of the barren wilderness, on the banks of the River Jordan.

desert

This means that the good news of God’s salvation beckons to us in the margins of our lives, yea, verily, that the good news of God’s salvation belongs in the margins of our lives. It is as light when we walk in darkness, food when we hunger, water when we thirst, comfort when we are distressed, hope when we despair. No matter where we are, surely at our best, yet more…most importantly at our worst, there is nowhere where God’s good news of Jesus Christ does not, cannot, will not reach us and redeem us.

 

Illustration:
Saint Mark (Saint Marc), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:
(1) Yet, provocatively enough, including non-Israelite women, some of questionable reputation: Tamar (Matthew 1.3; for her story see Genesis 38), Rahab (Matthew 1.5; see Joshua 2.1-21; 6.22-25), Ruth (Matthew 1.5; see the Book of Ruth), and Bathsheba (Matthew 1.6; see 2 Samuel 11-12).
(2) John 1.1
(3) 2 Kings 1.8

rebirth redux (a reflection on yesterday morn)

crow

Why was I surprised that the cawing,
the calling
of crows would signal
a Spirit-rebirth of joy and gratitude
after days of sorrowing o’er the world’s ills?

For crows are a symbol,
yes, in some civilizations, of death and grief,
yet, in biblical tradition,

an emissary of God’s sanctification sent forth by…

Noah from the ark to test whether the waters of the Great Flood had receded(1)
God to feed the prophet Elijah amidst a drought in the land(2)

and a beneficiary of God’s benediction(3) of whom Jesus said, “Consider the ravens…”(4)

Yea, tho’ surprised,
quickly I realized
a Franciscan (truly, a pax et bonum)-moment
of heavenly portent
in the cawing,
the calling
of my brother and sister crows;
reminding me
(remanding in the custody of my memory; ne’er again, I pray, to forget)
that, whate’er betide, God is good, always and in all ways.

 

Footnotes:

(1) Genesis 8.6-7

(2) 1 Kings 17.4-6

(3) Psalm 147.9; Job 38.41

(4) Luke 12.24

Lord, show us a sign!

a sermon, based on Luke 9.28-36 and Exodus 34.29-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 2017

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “The Messiah of God.”[1] His identity confirmed it was important for Jesus to declare what kind of Messiah he was: “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering…and be killed, and on the third day be raised”[2] and, therefore, what kind of disciples they were: “If you want to be my followers, deny yourselves, take up your cross daily, and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”[3]

Hard words to hear. Harder to heed. The disciples had left everything to follow Jesus. They had heard his great teaching, beheld his grand miracles, experienced his wondrous love. Now this! The promise of his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice. What on earth would, could compel them to keep going, to continue following? Perhaps nothing on earth, but rather only a heavenly sign of their destination, their destiny.

The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520

“Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray.” There, the first sign. Jesus is transfigured; his face and clothing blindingly bright. The Greek indicates that Jesus does not reflect, like the moon, like Moses on Mount Sinai whose face shone, mirroring the glory of God, but rather, like the sun, radiates light. His transfiguration is effulgent; the external emanation of his internal glory of God.

Second sign. Moses and Elijah, chief representatives of God’s Law and the prophets, appear, speaking with Jesus about his departure, his death, resurrection, and ascension that he will accomplish in Jerusalem thus, confirming the truth of everything Jesus has told his disciples about his suffering and death and their self-sacrifice.

Third sign. If the disciples want or need additional proof of Jesus’ identity, the vox Deus, the voice of God resounds from the heavens: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

One of our Epiphany season hymns of praise to Jesus glories in his transfiguration:

Manifest on mountain height, shining in resplendent light,

where disciples filled with awe Thy transfigured glory saw,

When from there Thou leddest them steadfast to Jerusalem,

cross and Easter Day attest God in man made manifest.[4]

There on that mountaintop, for Peter, John, and James, there is no doubt. Jesus is the Messiah, the revelation, the revealer of God!

So, now what? What do we do with this story? We weren’t there. We didn’t see it. And that’s a good thing.

Peter had an idea: “Let’s build houses!” We can’t blame him. We’d want to stay, too. But funny thing about this and any other mountaintop transfiguration when God’s glory unmistakably is revealed. They don’t last. Transfigurations, appearing in numerous ways – a ray of sunlight through dark clouds, a brilliant rainbow after a storm, a kind word when we’re discouraged, a tender touch when tired, forgiveness when we have offended, acceptance when all we see is the worst about ourselves – come and go as splendid serendipity, beyond our power to command or control, encouraging us to keep going, continuing to follow Jesus.

Transfigurations don’t last. But “on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain”, a man begging that his ailing son be made well approached Jesus, who healed the boy.[5]

This is a sign that the mountaintop transfiguration, whilst never enduring forever, can be repeated in our daily living. Wherever, whenever you and I, through word and deed, transform discord into harmony, despair into hope, disappointment into forgiveness, sorrow into joy, there is a transfiguration moment when we become signs, revelations, revealers of the glory of God.

 

Illustration: The Transfiguration (1518-1520), Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael), 1483-1520. Note: The Transfiguration is depicted in the upper part of the painting. Jesus floats aloft, with Moses and Elijah, bathed in an aura of light and clouds, as, below, Peter, John, and James, bowed and supine in fatigue, shield their eyes from the radiance. (The two figures kneeling to the left of the mountain top are said to be St. Felicissimus and St. Agapitus, two 3rd century Christian martyrs.) The lower part of the painting portrays Jesus’ disciples seeking, without success, to cure the demon-possessed boy (Luke 9.40), who, in his agony, is naked to his waist, his flesh pale, his body contorted, his arms outstretched, his eyes rolled upward.

Footnotes:

[1] Luke 9.20

[2] Luke 9.22

[3] Luke 9.23-24, paraphrased

[4] From the hymn, Songs of thankfulness and praise, Jesus, Lord, to thee we raise, The Hymnal 1982, #135, verse 4; words by F. Bland Tucker

[5] Luke 9.37-42

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 18, Tuesday, March 21, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On waiting, doubting, and listening in prayer: O Lord, some (most? all?) of the time, when I call Your Name and wait for Your reply, sometimes patiently, sometimes not, I do not hear anything; not even Your still small Voice that, though the sheerest of silences, must, I (want to) think, bear a detectable sound. (Elijah heard it!)[1]

And I wonder: Are You there? Are You anywhere?

Or are You, Your Presence, Your Power, Your Person, only a thought that I was taught to believe, which, as ephemeral as vapor, now, as I draw e’er closer to the psalmist’s discernment of the length of years at this business of living,[2] my experience has convinced me to rule out of existence? (I confess that occasionally I allow my self this thought or rather this thought cannonades the citadel – sometimes the crumbling castle in need of shoring up! – of my faith in You, O Lord!)

O Lord, in the face of this, my wonderment, my doubt, nevertheless, within me, daily, hourly, moment by moment, I sense an urge, unquenchable and irresistible, emerging from the depths of me and rising to my conscious awareness, to call out to You.

O Lord, in this, as I continue alway to listen for Your Voice, I have learned to listen also for the echo of my voice as it grows fainter by the instant until I no longer can hear the sound of it. In this, in faith, I believe, I know that my plea has reached You. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] I refer to God’s Word to Elijah (1 Kings 19.11-13a) (my emphasis): “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it

[2] My reference to Psalm 90.10a: The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong…

a-Lenten-prayer-a-day, day 8, Thursday, March 9, 2017

my-hands-2-27-17Note: As a personal, spiritual discipline, I write a prayer for each of the forty days of Lent; each petition focusing on a theme, truly, relating to a care or concern weighing on my mind and heart, at times, vexing my soul and spirit…

On thinking too much: Sometimes (all the time?), Lord, I think too much about the world, about my self; sometimes thinking that if I think long and hard enough, I will, I can resolve – or, at least (at last?), catch a glimpse of an answer to – the questions of life and the riddles of my self that roil my soul and keep me restless and awake at night. Yet, the more I think (Ha! My dear Lord, I see the irony of thinking more about thinking too much!), I have come to this discernment for today: Too much thought without end is wearying; falling short of even Sisyphean success, for I never seem to get very far, oft unable to roll the stone of my wondering, my worrying beyond the bottom of the hill of my daily wrestling.[1] Hence, I become a martyr, slain by the barbs of my ceaseless inquisition, my interrogation without end of my self. Today, if but for an instant, I pray that You quiet the noise of my inner censorious chorus that I, listening only for the “sound of sheer silence”, ever the pacific introit to Your coming,[2] may know again the wisdom of trusting and resting in Your Love. Amen.

Footnotes:

[1] I refer to Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who, punished by Zeus for treachery, was forced endlessly, eternally to push a great stone up a hill only to have it roll down, calling him to repeat the action. Truly, the term “Sisyphean” is a metaphor applying to any labor that is time-and-energy-extensive-and-intensive and futile.

[2] See I Kings 19.11-13 (my emphasis): (The word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying) “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

going out to see John

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church a sermon, based on Matthew 3.1-12, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on 2nd Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2016

Today, I seek to enter and inhabit, live the scripture. I invite you to join me.

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About three years ago, I first heard about John. All Jerusalem was abuzz about a man who came out of the wilderness, preaching repentance and the kingdom of heaven. Messianic talk. My people know that repentance, turning around, returning to God, is necessary preparation for the Messiah’s coming to restore Israel to glory.

the-voice-in-the-desert-la-voix-dans-le-desert-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

Curious, I went out to see John. I wasn’t alone. Multitudes from Jerusalem, the Judean countryside, and along the Jordan gathered on the riverbanks.

st-john-the-baptist-preaching-anastasio-fontebuoni-1571-1626-palatine-gallery-florence-italy

He was something to see! Bony, yet brawny. His hair, long, unkempt. People said, “He looks like Elijah!” Though gone a thousand years, our sacred history describes Elijah as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.”[1] Four hundred years ago, the prophet Malachi foretold Elijah’s return to announce the Day of the Lord[2] when God intervenes in human history to set things right. Elijah…John…close enough!

It wasn’t only how John looked, but also what he said. “I cry in the wilderness! Prepare God’s way!” Six hundred years ago, Isaiah, with those same words, declared the end of our ancestors’ captivity in Babylon and return to the Promised Land.[3] But now the Roman Empire holds us captive in the Promised Land! So, when John spoke like Isaiah, I dared to hope for liberation!

Some Pharisees and Sadducees were in the crowd. Odd seeing them together. They don’t agree on much, politically or theologically. John saw them and all heaven broke loose! “Vipers!” he screamed. Snakes haven’t had a good reputation since Adam and Eve! Terrible thing to call someone, especially our most respected people! Nevertheless, he said: “Vipers! You claim to be Abraham’s children, God’s chosen, but it’s not enough to be upright in outward behavior. You must be righteous in your inward being and, in this, you aren’t faithful and true to God. Vipers!”

saint-john-the-baptist-and-the-pharisees-saint-jean-baptiste-et-les-pharisiens-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902

In the past, others came from the wilderness claiming to be prophets. John was different. He didn’t say he was a prophet, he acted like one! And he preached and practiced baptism. No one baptized except the desert-dwelling ascetics, the Essenes, and then only for members of their community. John called everybody to be baptized as a sign of repentance in preparation for the Messiah, whose sandals, he said, he wasn’t worthy to carry. John never promoted himself, always pointed beyond himself. What humility!

I’m a skeptic, but I was impressed. John had charisma. A gift of truth-telling. And I went to him, begging, “Baptize me!” With strong hands, John plunged me into the water, holding me under, finally letting me go. Gasping for air, I didn’t know if my life had turned around, but I did see it pass before me! Yet I felt different. Expectant. Ready for a brighter, better day.

Then nothing happened. Well, something happened, but nothing good. King Herod arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded John. Just before that a man from Nazareth, Jesus, came to John to be baptized. Incredible stories were told about his preaching, teaching, healing, raising someone from the dead. People called him Messiah and followed him, expecting God’s kingdom to come. Then the Romans crucified him.

Promises, hopes, like all before and since, come to naught. I wondered then, I wonder now, why did I bother to go out to see John?

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John burst onto the first century Palestinian scene with incandescent temperament and intemperate tongue. His words inflaming minds, igniting hearts. His urgency suffering gladly no hypocrisy or subtlety.

Why would anyone go out to see John? Perhaps because his message of repentance resonated in human hearts. People knew that they were soul-sick, in need of healing. They knew that they, even at their finest, falling short of their best, were in need of help. They knew that they, in their wildest imagining envisioning who they were destined to become, needed hope. In the ferocious sincerity of John’s language, they heard a word of truth and new life. Not happy-ever-after-fantasy, for given what we know of the world and ourselves, life was not, is not like that.

John spoke truth. About new life through repentance, our turning around to face anew God and ourselves and our reality. All of it. Our highest, unspeakable joys and our deepest, unspoken fears – love and hate, assurance and fear, trust and betrayal, communion and separation, intimacy and abandonment, life and death. New life that lives in the power of the paradoxical peace that nothing, even the worst of everything will not, cannot destroy us, for we are a part of something greater.

John proclaimed and died for the truth of this reality, preparing the way for Jesus, the Messiah, who not only proclaimed, but personified the truth of God, for which he was crucified. A crucifixion that led to a resurrection. A resurrection that is the foundation for a community of life-giving love. A community for two millennia through which people have sought to live the life of God and in which we gather today going out to see and to hear John to be reminded afresh of how real and new and true the life of God is.

 

Photograph: me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006 (by Walt Calahan)

Illustrations:

The Voice in the Desert (La voix dans le desert) (1886-1894), James Tissot (1836-1902)

St. John the Baptist Preaching, Anastasio Fontebuoni (1571-1626), Palatine Gallery, Florence, Italy

Saint John the Baptist and the Pharisees (Saint Jean-Baptiste et les pharisiens), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] 2 Kings 1.8

[2] Malachi 4.5

[3] Isaiah 40.3